We see Serkis, sporting an elaborate pompadour and the practically lip-smacking glee of a madman, watching from the crowd in the aftermath of a staged crime scene his character has created. From that moment on, the film becomes a fairly predictable game of cat and mouse, with Luther’s cat — implausibly sprung from prison in short order — in hot pursuit of the mouse, whom Serkis portrays as if he were racing through the film on a Lime scooter with the brake line cut, and wearing a fluorescent orange vest.
This ostentatious character, whom Luther correctly surmises as craving an audience, is not destined to go down in the annals of criminal subtlety. That is, perhaps, as it should be in a story whose themes have to do with the ubiquity of villainy in the darkest corners of the internet, as well as the pernicious access to web platforms for those seeking eyeballs — whether in search of fame or infamy. Is there any real difference nowadays?
There’s no big mystery here, except as pertains to the question of whether Luther will apprehend his quarry before he himself is apprehended, either by a returning character — Luther’s friend, sometime nemesis and former boss, Martin Schenk (Dermot Crowley) — or by a new one: Detective Odette Raine (Cynthia Erivo). In fact, Luther and Schenk engage in a small wager to that effect, adding nothing to the stakes of the over-the-top but only moderately engaging film, which at one point includes a scene, set in London’s Piccadilly Circus, in which several extras, playing victims of the villain’s blackmail, appear to plunge to their deaths simultaneously.
It’s quite the visual set piece in a story that also travels to a remote, photogenically snowbound mansion in Norway for its climax, and also features a scene in which multiple human victims of the bad guy, hanging from nooses, are incinerated in front of their loved ones.
Serkis aside, “Luther” is notable, in a good way, for its performances. Elba, ever watchable, makes for a nicely conflicted antihero, torn between toeing the line and using unconventional methods — such as threatening to tattoo the eyeball of a reluctant witness — to extract information. Crowley’s rumpled Schenk, a decent cop who knows and likes Luther well enough to turn an occasional blind eye to his former subordinate’s misdeeds, makes a welcome return, with Erivo — one of the most exciting actresses of her generation — also fun to watch.
By that measure, “Luther” is not without its pleasures, assuming you have the stomach for the kind of theatrical crimes that exist only in filmdom. Serkis may be guilty of chewing the scenery to a baby-food-like pulp, but rest assured: In this formulaic but fun return to form for Elba’s Luther, all miscreants will ultimately face punishment — whether for crimes against humanity or acting.
R. At area theaters; available March 10 on Netflix. Contains disturbing violence, coarse language and some sexual material. 128 minutes.